Casual observers of the “sport of kings” need only look to the 14-race Breeders’ Cup championship program Nov. 6-7 to understand why connoisseurs are licking their chops. The two-day card rivals the biggest post-season events in the sports world – whether it’s the Super Bowl, FIFA Champions’ League group stages, the Stanley Cup or “bracketology and March Madness.
But while the equine pyrotechnics will build to a crescendo with the 1 1/2 mile Turf and 1 1/4 mile Classic, my scrutiny will be on the Juvenile Turf Sprint because this race is in its infancy as part of the championship program. A “listed” stakes race in its debut in 2018, it was upgraded to Grade II status last season and retains that level for the 2020 edition. Judging from the past performances of this year’s “contenders,” the upcoming competition appears more in line with an overnight stakes race than part of a world-class event. Consider the overflow group of 17 entries, 12 of which will be allowed to go to post (see https://www.breederscup.com/contenders/112963). Just 5 of the 17 have hit six-figure purse earnings. Of the others, two have yet to hit the winner’s circle; six have won just once. The average number of starts for the entrants is less than four (3.76).
This season’s version is a handicapper’s nightmare, reminding me of my working days at Monmouth Park during my college years when, all too often, I failed to come up with a trifecta “wheel” horse from the large field of cheap claimers that most often comprised a route-going “boat race.” But I digress … because we’re not dealing with $3,000 claimers. No, we have world-class trainers and jockeys for royally bred horses owned by powerhouse stables. Of course, there’s the inevitable “sleeper” in the field – an obscure owner with an upstart horse, saddled by a journeyman handler and ridden by a youthful jockey … all of whom suddenly find themselves on the biggest of stages.
So, without further delay, let’s get down to some key variables to consider:
(1) “Course work” – At times overlooked or undervalued, one relevant handicapping factor is rather simple – horses with a superior race over the track. There are two entries that fit the bill: Bodenheimer, the dark bay son of Atta Boy Roy whose dam, Tribunal, was sired by U.S. and Canadian 2-year-old champion (winner of 8 of 9 races) and 1981 Eclipse Award winner Deputy Minister; and Cowan, a Kentucky-bred chestnut colt whose four career starts have taken place in the Bluegrass State – at Churchill Downs, Ellis Park, Kentucky Downs and, most recently Keeneland.
Bodenheimer and Cowan faced each other Oct. 4 in the 5 1/2 furlong Indian Summer Stakes on the Keeneland turf. Jockey Brian Hernandez, Jr., on Bodenheimer, broke fast as the Valorie Lund-trained Washington bred set blazing, rail-hugging and, most importantly, uncontested early fractions of 21.60 and 44.56 thru the half mile. Meanwhile, Ricardo Santana Jr. kept Cowan well off the pace, sitting fifth in a small field of six. While he saved real estate on the rail, Cowan was never a serious threat as he rallied to finish second to Bodenheimer, who was ridden out for the 5 1/2 furlong, one-length victory in 1:02.35.
(2) “In good company” – It’s not as if several of the entries haven’t competed against one another at racetracks, major and otherwise, prior to their upcoming Breeders’ Cup race. Where they met and how they performed – against those they expect to see on Nov. 6 as well as others who won’t be at Keeneland – matters. I’ve chosen two races to illustrate:
First is the Norfolk Stakes at Royal Ascot. A field of 14 met on Jun. 19, a five-furlong straightaway “cavalry charge.” Golden Pal, coming off a 2nd place finish in a 4 1/2 furlong Maiden Special Weight on the dirt at Gulfstream Park (the Florida-bred bay colt set fractions of 21.58 and 45.49 before tiring late to finish a half-length behind Gatsby), moved out to an early lead and held on doggedly until nearing the wire, where The Lir Jet under Oisin Murphy got up to win by a neck in 1:01.83. Lipizzaner (also entered in the Juvenile Turf Sprint) finished 4th, beaten six lengths, and was never a factor. In his next start two months later, Golden Pal demolished a field of six in The Skidmore on Saratoga’s turf course, the Wesley Ward-trained colt going wire to wire and setting fractions of 21.99, 44.37, 55.12 and 1:00.88. Irad Ortiz, Jr. guided his charge to win in-hand. Of interest, The Lir Jet is slated to compete in the Breeders’ Cup, but in the Juvenile Turf at a mile, while RacingAndSports.com shows Lipizzaner as a possible starter in the U.K. for the Oct. 24 running of the listed vertem.co.uk Doncaster Stakes at 6 furlongs/2 yards.
Second is the Speakeasy Stakes at Santa Anita. A field of seven colts and two fillies went to post in the Sep 26 race at 5 1/2 furlongs on the turf. Forwardly placed Irsh-bred Amanzi Yimpilo pressed early leader No Pedigree thru fast early fractions of 21.89 and 44.66. The Wesley Ward-trained chestnut filly turned back the charge of Wyfire to win by a head in a final time of 1:02.77 under strong urging from Luis Saez. For his part, jockey Flavien Prat went from left- to right-handed whip, switching Wyfire’s lead in mid-stretch. The dark brown colt responded with a late surge that needed only another stride or two to be successful. The pair are listed by Horse Racing Nation’s Web site as “probable” to meet on Breeders’ Cup Friday.
(3) “From strong stock” – When someone mentions Dosage Index, my first thought turns to the ability of a three-year-old Triple-Crown candidate to get the 1 1/4 mile Derby distance and/or the 1 1/2 mile Belmont. But the DI actually calculates a horse’s ability in sprints and intermediate distances as well as the longer routes. To either reacquaint or introduce my visitors, thoroughbreds are rated on a five-step continuum, from “Brilliant” (a sire’s progeny faring best at very short sprints) to “Professional” (a sire’s progeny faring well at very long, route-going distances). In between, “Intermediate,” “Classic” and “Solid” are the other aptitudinal groupings. The index, itself, is based on the presence of specific influential sires, called “Chef-De-Race” (chiefs of racing), in the first four generations of a horse’s pedigree. Currently, there are 224 sires so designated.
While it’s not this railbird’s practice to “geek out” on DI computations, I try to be mindful of the presence of “chiefs of racing” in a horse’s previous generations and the ability of those chiefs’ progeny to have exceled at similar distances, surfaces and track conditions. Here are a couple of noteworthy entries for the Juvenile Turf Sprint, both having come late to their two-year-old campaigns.
After Five debuted on Sep. 10 at Kentucky Downs, North America’s only all-turf racecourse. The Maryland-bred roan colt finished 2nd in a field of 12, a 6 1/2 furlong Maiden Special Weight. On Oct. 11 in the Grade III Belmont Futurity, run on the Widener Turf Course, he once again finished 2nd, missing by a half-length to Second of July. For the chestnut gelding, it was his second victory at the NYRA track in three weeks, having hit the wire first in a six-furlong Maiden Special Weight run over the Inner Turf Course. The Kentucky homebred trained by Phil Gleaves ran remarkably similar races, coming from off the pace and winning in 1:09.45 in his maiden voyage and 1:09.33 in his stakes victory.
Without much past-performance data to go by, one might turn to the Dosage Index for some insight into the ability of this pair to compete with a field comprised of some of the season’s best juvenile sprinters. More specifically, I look for the presence of the chiefs and whether their aptitudinal grouping indicates a balance of speed and stamina, rather than the specific formula and the dosage number it yields. Why?… Because with so many juveniles so short on experience, I’m more interested in a horse’s ceiling, understanding that most in this particular field are certainly eligible to improve off their early outings. The sixty-four-thousand-dollar question is: “How much might they improve?”
After Five has two stallions in his third-generation pedigree (great-grandsires) designated as a Chef-De-Race. Both Danzig and A.P. Indy are categorized as an Intermediate/Classic chief which, in the DI continuum, indicates stamina in the longer sprints to intermediate routs (roughly 7 furlongs to 1 1/4 mile). In the colt’s fourth-generation pedigree (great great-grandsires), there are five designated as a Chef-De-Race – Northern Dancer, Mr. Prospector, Icecapade, Seattle Slew and Grey Dawn. All are grouped in the Brilliant/Classic category, connoting early speed with the stamina to carry that speed up to the “Derby” distance.
Again, it is important to remember the Dosage Index is a measure of the progeny of a Chef-De-Race’s speed and stamina – not a measure of the stallion/Chef himself.
Second of July also has two members of his third-generation pedigree designated as a Chef-De-Race – Danzig and Smart Strike. The gelding shares two of his great great-grandsires with After Five – Northern Dancer and Mr. Prospector. A reminder these two stallions are from the Brilliant/Classic aptitudinal group, an indicator of early speed and an ability to carry that speed over distance.
One more observation: Both After Five and Second of July came from well off the pace in their confrontation at Belmont Park. Unlike several of their competitors, they will be cutting back in distance when they lock horns in the 5 1/2 furlong Juvenile Turf Sprint. Hmmm! It should be interesting to see how Dylan Davis and whoever gets the call on After Five negotiate the race.
(4) “Connections” – The purse is big … the race is on grass … and the event is the most highly prized in its category – all factors ensuring the presence of thoroughbred racing’s bluebloods. Wesley Ward, whose reputation for developing juveniles rivals Bob Baffert’s prowess in preparing three-year-old horses for the Triple Crown series, has no fewer than five entries listed among the contenders – After Five, Amanzi Yimpilo, Golden Pal, Outadore and Royal Approval. It appears that Amanzi Yimpilo, with Luis Saez the rider, and Golden Pal, under Tyler Gaffalione, are definite starters barring unforeseen circumstances. They have no other Breeders’ Cup options. Outadore, forwardly placed in the 6 1/2 furlong Juvenile Turf Sprint at Kentucky Downs on Sep. 12, took the lead in mid-stretch and drew off when challenged late by stablemate Fauci. The roan colt (Outwork – Adore You, by Tactical Cat), like After Five, would seem to benefit from some extra running room and are also eligible for the one-mile Juvenile Turf. Irad Ortiz, Jr. would have to choose between the two if both Ward trainees wind up running at a mile. Wesley Ward can also choose to run Royal Approval, with Ortiz in the irons, in the Juvenile Fillies Turf. That would minimize competition among the trainer’s owners and provide Ward with a shot at winning three Breeders’ Cup races.
Meanwhile, an “Anglo-Irish” invasion is led by Miss Amulet (IRE), who has three wins, two places and earnings of $172,961 in seven starts. The Ken Condon-trained filly, bred by Ringfort Stud in Offaly, Ireland, is coming off a second-place finish in the 6-furlong Grade I Juddmonte Cheveley Park Stakes for fillies at Newmarket on Sep. 26. Two starts back, the gray daughter of Sir Prancealot (IRE) – Shena’s Dream (IRE), by Oasis Dream (GB) was victorious in a field of 14 going six furlongs in the Grade II Sky Bet Lowther Stakes at York on Aug. 20. Ubettabelieveit (IRE), winner of three races in five starts, captured the five-furlong Grade II Bombardier Flying Childers Stakes at Doncaster in his last outing. The bay colt out of Kodiac (GB) – Ladylishandra (IRE), by Mjuadil (USA) is trained by Nigel Tinkler and, like Mis Amulet (IRE), was bred by Ringfort Stud.
The regally bred Lipizzaner, by Uncle Mo (USA) – Irish Lights (AUS), by Fastnet Rock (AUS), whose dam sire is an Australian Chef-De-Race (Brilliant/Classic), is trained by Aidan O’Brien, the most successful Epsom Derby trainer of all time with eight wins. To date, the successes of the bay colt’s connections have not been realized by Lipizzaner. His lone win came in the Irish Stallion Farms Ebf Race at Navan. The colt was a well-beaten 4th in the Grade II Norfolk Statkes at Ascot and finished a disappointing 6th in the Grade I Juddmonte Middle Park Stakes at Newmarket. His most recent effort at the Curragh was a bit more promising, when he came from off the pace to finish 2nd, a length behind A Case of You in the Grade III Jebel Ali Racecourse And Stable Anglesey Stake, run at six furlongs.
“The Hot Horse” – There are three unbeaten thoroughbreds in the Juvenile Turf Sprint – Second of July, Outadore … and the yet-to-be-mentioned, but not-to-be-overlooked Dirty Dangle. Racing at metro Toronto’s Woodbine Racetrack, the daughter of Not This Time won at first asking in a five-furlong Maiden Allowance race on a synthetic surface by defeating even-money favorite Souper Munnings. Dirty Dangle followed with a scintillating come-from-behind victory over Irish-bred Illegal Smile, the 9-5 favorite, in the five-furlong Woodbine Cares Stakes on turf. Once again, Souper Munnings fell victim to the roan filly.
The trainer, 36-year veteran horseman Ralph J. Biamonte of Niagara Falls, Ontario, has just one graded-stakes win to his credit – Feathers in the Grade III Bessarabian Handicap at Woodbine, some 20 years ago. The jockey, Sheena Ryan, has her own story. Born in Kindersley, Saskatchewan, she grew up in Roseneath, Ontario, a short distance from Peterborough. Having taken riding lessons as a child and wanting to become a jockey since the age of 9, Sheena nevertheless went to college and became an accountant. Always wondering what might have been (and what could still be), she eventually left her employer to pursue that dream. In 2014, Ms. Ryan won the Sovereign Award for Outstanding Apprentice Jockey in Canada.
In a Breeders’ Cup field dominated by lightly raced but highly regarded horses, Kentucky-bred Dirty Dangle – along with her trainer and jockey – surely fits the role of “rank outsider.” While my handicapping comes up with Golden Pal and Miss Amulet (IRE), my heart – and a couple of “loonies” – will be with Ralph, Sheena and the “Woodbine burner” (my nickname), Dirty Dangle.